Blues cruise sets sail

By Scott Kara

New Zealand is set for a dose of the blues this summer. But never fear, it'll make you feel good.

On March 22, Australia's premier blues and roots music festival, the five-day Byron Bay Bluesfest, is heading to Whitianga on the Coromandel for the first time.

While New Zealand might be missing out on acts like John Fogerty and Kiwi boy Keith Urban, who play the Australian dates, the Whitianga line-up is strong, with blues heavyweights Buddy Guy and Keb' Mo', alt-country troubadours Wilco, former Stone Roses singer Ian Brown, Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, and local acts Hollie Smith, Midge Marsden, Pluto and The Checks on the bill.

More acts for Bluesfest NZ, which is officially known as the Coromandel Peninsula Blues and Roots Music Festival, will be announced soon.

Festival director, Peter Noble, who has been involved in the Byron Bay Bluesfest since it started in 1990, rates Wilco as one of the best live bands in the world and Buddy Guy as one of the finest guitar players alive today.

"He's definitely the best in the blues. I think people have discovered him all over again and it's kind of sad at the age of 72 that you're being rediscovered. But then again that's the injustice of the blues that the guys who create and play it the best are not necessarily the most popular."

And while acts like Ian Brown and KT Tunstall are not strictly blues or roots, Noble admits that they are on the bill to attract a more diverse crowd through the gates.

"Bluesfest is not a strict blues festival. When Ben Harper first played in '96 that certainly showed us a new way to go and I've been very open about that."

Following Harper's appearance, Noble came up with the idea of changing the name of the festival to include blues and roots music.

"It was a way to try and modernise blues music and group it with other sorts of music. All of a sudden people like John Butler [from the John Butler Trio] turned around and said, 'I don't see myself as a blues artist, but I do see myself as a blues and roots artist.' So for me it was a way of trying to bring blues into the mainstream and my thing is about keeping blues in front of the people.

"But I have to make sure there are a number of artists who you couldn't call anything else but blues," he says.

Noble, who has promoted concerts in New Zealand for nearly 30 years, concedes it is a hard market, but he hopes the Coromandel Bluesfest will grow into a multi-day event.

"I hope it goes well," he laughs. "I don't want to go out and say, 'It'll be brilliant.' But I know it will be brilliant musically. And, to me, a one-day festival is an event, not a festival, but it will become a festival if the public decide they want it to be."

He says the Australian festival has endured and grown to include three offshoot events in Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, because it has stuck to its original ethos of bringing quality blues music to the people.

"It didn't start as a commercial music festival, it started with a couple of people saying, 'Gee, there's just not any blues festivals in Australia and we need to get something to hear this stuff we love hearing.' That's almost 20 years ago now," he says.

"It wasn't done from a commercial aspect like doing a budget and going out and buying some talent. I don't think we had a budget for the first six or seven years, which might go to show why we had to work second jobs. It was for the love of it and the recognition that blues music wasn't getting much of a hearing here. The dream of Bluesfest is to do an event in this part of the world that is musically inspiring because it features the best."

What: The Coromandel Peninsula Blues and Roots Music Festival (Bluesfest NZ)
Where & when: Whitianga, Coromandel Peninsula, March 22.
Line-up: Buddy Guy, Keb' Mo', KT Tunstall, Ian Brown, Wilco, The Checks, Hollie Smith, Midge Marsden, with more to be announced.
Tickets: On sale January 14

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